"If I Had A Hammer…"

We went over to one of our favorite local spots on Sunday night for a fried chicken fix. We are about as regular as one could hope to be at this particular place. We have eaten there at least two dozen times, both at lunch and dinner; big groups and just us; full-on meals with three courses and bottles of wine, as well as the “drop-in for a quick bite” scenario. The food quality is always top notch (although the fried chicken had an uncharacteristic sweetness last night; I think they had put too much sugar in the brine); and, although we have had one or two run-ins with mediocre to poor service quality, we have, of late, been on a streak of several excellent experiences. Well, the streak has come to an end.

Sometimes I wish I were a carpenter. Because if I were a carpenter (stop that singing RIGHT NOW!) I might be more relaxed when I go out to eat. Let me re-phrase: I might not be so critical of service, food and all the other tiny little facets of restaurant operations that I cannot help but notice because of who I am and what I do for a living. They say that ignorance is bliss, and if I did construction for a living instead of manage a restaurant, I would maybe not be so upset when I get ignored for a full ten minutes after being seated (one of the Cardinal Sins in our business). I would, instead, be looking at how the crown molding in the corners of the ceiling has too much caulk because of the bad miter cuts. Instead of getting even more upset when I discover that our table is in a kind of overflow station and being served (or ignored) by the bartender who is not more than five feet away from us, I would instead be noticing the uneven grading on the cement floor, and how the handles on the row of cabinets in the service station are not aligned.

But, I am not a carpenter. I work in a restaurant and have for a long time; so I cannot help myself. I get upset when things don’t happen the way that I know they should when I am sitting at the tables instead of supervising them. I know that the job is truly not that difficult: just make sure all your guests have dinner before they leave. Granted, there are many more specific and detailed steps to the process, but that’s really the gist.

My wife and daughter always accuse me of just being cranky, as they did Sunday night. I will admit that, like most people, I do get cranky when I have low blood sugar; and I always have low blood sugar when we are going out to eat. But that’s the whole point isn’t it? We go out to eat because we are hungry. So maybe I am guilty as charged of occasionally putting on the Cranky Pants, but that does not excuse the management from their responsibility to put well-trained, capable people on the floor to provide service to their guests.

That is really the bottom line here: everything that happens in a restaurant, the good, the bad, and the ugly, is ultimately the manager’s fault. If your server does not know the menu or cannot handle the business volume, it’s the manager’s fault for not providing an adequate amount training. They have subsequently compounded their mistake by allowing said server on the floor or, in this case, behind the bar.

So, our guy has finally made it over to our table. He’s already overdrawn his account at the Good Guest-Karma Bank, and we haven’t even gotten a drink yet. His excuse was that he had been busy tasting some wines that were being offered in special flights that night. I’ve got to admit that were it me, I would have opted for the wine tasting as well, so maybe it’s a viable excuse. He takes our order without writing it down (a real pet peeve of mine; it comes off as the height of arrogance unless you can pull it off flawlessly) and sends it off to the kitchen.

To his credit, though, he did recognize that we (just me, really) were miffed at being ignored; so after we order he sends one of the managers over to schmooze us a bit. She proceeds to go into a kind of Stand-Up-Comic-warm-up-the-room bit about Halloween and Trick-or-Treating; an obvious distraction move and it wasn’t helping. She would have gotten much more mileage out of apologizing and accepting responsibility for her own lack of oversight rather than just schmoozing for the sake of schmoozing.

Meanwhile, our server has moved on immediately to his next mistake by forgetting our wine (nowhere to hide on this one: he didn’t write it down and he’s the Bartender for Christ’s sake, so he can’t play his “the bartender was busy” card). The four lovely Stone Crab claws we had ordered as an app have arrived, and the Sauvignon Blanc we wanted to accompany them is nowhere to be seen. Were I to start eating the crab now it would surely be gone well before the wine’s arrival. I am straining my neck looking around, hoping to get the attention of someone, anyone. Finally our guy sees me and comes out from behind the bar. I make the thumb up, pinkie out tipping the glass gesture and he gets the look on his face that says, “Shit, just when I was out of the hole, I’m back in again.” He brings us our wine, asks if we need anything else. “Yes, “ I reply, “the Coke my daughter had ordered.” Ste-e-e-e-rike Three!

The saving grace for him was that the food was excellent as always; and because I am in “the business” I always tip well despite the occasional service faux-pas. You’ve got to really screw the goose to get less than 20% percent from me; I think his bottom line was in the 18% neighborhood as I am really bad at 15% math.

I will always compliment great food and service, but I will always say something when it is not. I am not tolerant of people who give me the passive-aggressive “Oh, everything was great” comment at the table, then proceed to go out the door and bitch to anyone who will listen about how bad the meal was. So I filled out the comment card tucked inside the check presenter with the details and handed it the owner as I had a chat with him on my way out. (Side note: if you ever fill out one of these cards with anything but glowing praise, don’t leave it for the server to “accidentally” throw it in the trash.)

It’s never the big stuff, like an overcooked steak or spilling red wine on my coat that get to me. It’s the minutiae that can make the difference between bad, okay, and great meals. Intuitively great service comes from constant training and supervision. When a guest complains about something we have or haven’t done, I take it seriously and very personally because it means I have failed. It’s as glaring a mistake to me as a bent nail. If I were a carpenter (thank you Leon Russell).

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One Response to "If I Had A Hammer…"

  1. El Jefe says:

    How easy it would have been for him to have brought you each a complementary taste of one of the flight wines to make up for being tardy in getting to your table. 15 seconds max. And offer a Shirley for the daughter.

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